5 August 2012

Social media’s neoliberal world view (and how it affects us all)

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Recently I have embarked on trying to understand better the underlying ideology and world view of the Silicon Valley tech scene, and how this is impacting our daily lives through the products and services they create.

My mission is still far from complete and reading suggestions are more than welcome. On Twitter, Brian Schroer guided me to a few books and to this inspiring 2010 NYU doctoral dissertation by Alice E. Marwick, currently an Assistant Professor in Fordham University’s Department of Communication and Media Studies. Previously she was a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England in the Social Media Collective (and therefore a frequent co-author with danah boyd), and a visiting researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

Marwick’s 511 page dissertation, which she is now reworking into a book for Yale Press, is based on ethnographic research of the San Francisco technology scene and explains how social media’s technologies are based on status-seeking techniques that encourage people to apply free-market principles to the organization of social life.

Rather than re-publishing the abstract, I want to cite a few paragraphs (on pages 11-13) from her introduction:

“David Harvey defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey 2007, 2). Neoliberal policies emphasize “trade openness, a stable, low-inflation macroeconomic environment, and strong contract enforcement that protects the rights of private property holders” (Ferguson 2006). […] Neoliberalism is also an ideology of the integration of these principles into daily life; neoliberal discourse reproduces by encouraging people to regulate themselves ―according to the market principles of discipline, efficiency, and competitiveness‖ (Ong 2006, 4). Aihwa Ong identifies “technologies of subjectivity,” which use knowledge and expertise to inculcate this expertise in individual subjects. Exploring such technologies reveals how neoliberalism is experienced, and how these subjectivities are formed.

I argue that social media is a technology of subjectivity which educates users on proper self-regulating behavior. Internet and mobile technologies create the expectation that white-collar professionals should always be on the job, decreasing personal agency and creating conflicts between the often-contradictory demands of work and home life (Middleton 2007). Social media encourages status-seeking practices that interiorize the values of Silicon Valley, which is a model of neoliberal, free-market social organization. In the technology scene, market-based principles are used to judge successful social behavior in oneself and others, extended through social media. Status increases up to a point with the ability to attract and attain attention online. The ability to position oneself successfully in a competitive attention economy becomes a marker of reputation and standing. Web 2.0 discourse is a conduit for the materialization of neoliberal ideology. I isolate three self-presentation techniques rooted in advertising and marketing to show how social media encourages a neoliberal subject position among high-tech San Francisco workers: micro-celebrity, self-branding, and lifestreaming.”

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